On Sunday, the day of the presidential elections, people held their breaths in León, anticipating the violence seen in the 2008 municipal elections, when groups of young men fought in the streets with rocks. You couldn’t buy alcohol anywhere in the country from Saturday night until Monday, and the streets were eerily quiet Sunday, with many shops closed and a noticeable lack of the blaring of campaign songs (the 3 days leading up to the election were officially “days of silence” during which no campaigning was allowed).
I went with Irma, the housekeeper from my house, to vote at the law school a couple blocks away. The blue-uniformed national police at the door barely gave me a second glance as we entered with Carola, the adult daughter of the family, and her ten year-old son, José. After Irma found her name on the lists plastered to the walls we walked to her precinct’s voting room, where they examined her cédula, national identity card.
Despite receiving a text message from the Consejo Suprema Electoral (the national election commission) that read: “your vote is valid with just a signature from the members of the local voting committee” I was, in fact, not allowed to enter the voting room. I asked the member of the Policía Electoral if they would let José enter, “to learn the civic importance of voting,” but he was unconvinced. He listed the prohibitions: no cameras or cell phones, no-one else in the voting booth, no campaigning (the streets around the polling places were devoid of propaganda).
After voting Irma dipped her thumb in permanent ink to mark her as having voted—most citizens went black-thumbed through the city the next 2 days. I was able to take a photo outside the law school looking in, and everyone we encountered inside and out of the polling place was relaxed and friendly, with many neighbors greeting each other.
In search of drama, we walked to another precinct, where Carola volunteered in 2001 as a local election observer. She’d nearly been in a physical fight with someone on the committee when they challenged her signature, threatening to invalidate many ballots, she said. “There’s always problems in that precinct.”
When we arrived at the high school, an unsmiling Policia Electoral manned the gate, only letting people enter with their cédula. A man in glasses in his fifties approached, clutching a worn book. “I want to speak to the representative of the election commission.” A young man wearing a vest emblazoned with “Consejo Supremo Electoral” came out. The man with the glasses pulled a tattered, folded up document from his book and shook it at the younger man. “Why won’t you let me enter? I have proof that I’m a citizen, and you won’t let me enter?” The younger man replied calmly, “Señor, you need a cédula, that’s the law.”
When another older man confronted him, poking him in the chest, the representative of the CSE backed away, saying “Don’t touch me,” then returned to the security of the school. The man in the glasses lifted up his shirt to the crowd outside, saying, “I spent seven years in the mountains for this?!” and revealing a long scar across his belly.
We left soon thereafter, the tension from the scene somewhat dissolved by the calm presence of the bystanders and the bus drivers waiting to drive the ballots to the city center to be counted.
The months-old stencil on the façade of León city hall reads: “Daniel Presidente 2012/2017… Daniel Reeleción ya.” And in the end he was reelected with 62% of the vote, according to figures from the government. Overall the process was mostly calm, with conflicts reported in some parts of the country but without any widespread disturbances. Both national and international organizations (like the EU and Organization of American States) criticized the elections for a lack of transparency and for the failure in some cases to allow members of opposition parties to serve as observers. The leading opposition candidate, Fabio Gadea, who won 30% of the vote, has not accepted defeat, claiming “fraud.”
Yet on Sunday night fireworks crackled through the night, and Monday the students of the Juventud Sandinista paraded through the streets in bright pink t-shirts, waving the red and black flags of the frente. Their campaign song, a catchy cover of “Stand by Me,” boomed: “otra, otra vez…” Again, again…